A Look Behind the 'Wire' At Guantanamo

By Scott Higham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2004

On the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the newly arriving detainees thought they were walking into certain death. Dressed in reddish jumpsuits, a hue reserved for condemned men in the Arab world, the captives believed they were about to be executed.

U.S. military officers wondered whether the fears could work in their favor.

"The detainees think they are being taken to be shot," the military officers noted in one of a series of Defense Department memos written at the base and obtained by The Washington Post. "Should we continue not to tell them what is going on and keep them scared."

The previously undisclosed memos provide one of the most complete pictures to date of life behind the "wire" at Guantanamo. The detainees wanted an extra pair of shorts to wear in the shower, for privacy. They asked that the call to prayer be broadcast in camp, but a CD player could not be found. They asked for tea with "lots of sugar." The response: "Not now. However, we will reconsider in the future." Of the 600 detainees, 200 cooperated with their keepers.

The memos also document for the first time the precise nature of a number of long-standing concerns issued by the International Committee of the Red Cross over the treatment of suspected al Qaeda terrorists and Taliban fighters held at the base.

Among them: U.S. interrogators were placing detainees in isolation holds for as long as a month at a time for refusing to furnish information. Extraordinarily long interrogation sessions were having a "cumulative effect" on the mental health of the captives. And the reliance upon open-air cages instead of enclosed cells constituted inhumane treatment under the international laws of war.

Nearly two years after the camp opened, Red Cross officials sharply criticized the U.S. government for continuing to use the cages and keeping detainees in "excessive isolation," and for failing to establish due process or a stepped-up release schedule, according to the memos.

"There was no improvement in any of the four major areas of concern," an Oct. 9, 2003, memo states.

The memos also contain tantalizing clues about several high-value detainees who were off-limits to Red Cross inspectors during their periodic visits to Guantanamo, which typically lasted four to six weeks. A source familiar with captives at the base said one of the detainees, No. 760, is a close associate of Osama bin Laden, Abdallah Tabarak. The Moroccan citizen was bin Laden's personal bodyguard, took part in the Tora Bora battles in Afghanistan at the end of 2001 and sacrificed himself to secure bin Laden's escape by making calls on the al Qaeda leader's personal satellite telephone.

Red Cross officials were not permitted to interview Tabarak as recently as Feb. 2, according to a memo documenting a meeting at the base that day.

"Is there a possibility we can see him?" asked Vincent Cassard, the head of the Red Cross inspection team.

"Because of military necessity, the ICRC may not have private talks with him," said Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, then commander of detention operations at Guantanamo and now in charge of U.S. prison facilities in Iraq. ". . . He is the only one here at the Camp who has restricted access."

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